It was while musing over how hard it can be to find the time to blog, tweet and to update our customers on the web, that I started to explore the idea of the quiet web to coin a phrase. The web is a noisy place and search engines are the main culprits. Search engines need words to work out what our websites do, and, unless you can afford to get all of your web visitors through Adwords, you’re encouraged, by people like me, to get your website high up on search engines by writing often about the different areas of your business.
The result is that when we look, particularly for things we want to buy, we feel we’re more wandering through a Berber market in Marrakech than we are through quiet streets of small shops. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in the real world we have times we want to experience both and what we’re shopping for is bound to affect our needs. The web doesn’t yet seem to offer both with current search engines as the gateway.
Since it first crept into our lives, Google’s algorithm has grown immensely in terms of complexity. An initial understanding of a website was originally gleaned by looking at metadata; data about a web page that a visitor wouldn’t see without looking behind the scenes. Rapidly, the result of this was that the eager site owner could fill their metadata with the popular search terms of the day from Britney Spears to Hugh Grant affair as a way of persuading unwitting web users to click on a link to their website for entirely the wrong reasons.
Understandably, search engines evolved to combat the behaviour, and algorithms shifted towards judging a site by the words users themselves could see and even better, by the semantics with which users judge them; a title, a word in bold or an italic word is seen as more important just as it is to the human visitor. Of course, this opened up a whole new realm of abuse, by which reams of often unintelligible content was put into websites simply targeting search engines. The evolution since has been for search engines to understand, more and more, the linguistic value of your content, not necessarily by understanding the language itself (although patterns of abuse are certainly identified in that way) but by understanding visitor’s interaction with your content.
How much time your visitors spend on your blog posts, the search terms they originally found you with, whether other pages within your site were visited will all affect where your website will appear on a page of search results within Google. Google’s algorithm will use age, gender, past web behaviour, location and so much more to work out where your business should be placed in comparison to other businesses and it’s certainly possible to be found as a new business writing little in certain cases. However, if you’re not simply seeking local customers, and being found within search engine results is a key part in your business’s success, we’re still in a stage where writing words, and lots of them, can be the main way of getting useful traffic to your website. And if we have such a useful tool, we’re bound to want to use it, and we have made the web noisy as a result.
A slow creep toward The Quiet Web?
It seems to me that change is coming and that it will slowly gather pace. I conduct many user testing sessions and I often hear users comment about the noisiness / busy-ness / cluttered nature (delete as appropriate) of Facebook – and the market seems to be responding. Ello is an obvious reaction with Simple, Beautiful and Ad-free as its strap-line. It would be an immense undertaking for Ello to tread too heavily on Facebook’s toes in the short term, but if Ello continues to grow as it has been, businesses may learn rapid lessons about how to get a following. Being a little quieter could well form part of the equation. Google itself is experimenting with users being able to pay to have Google Ads removed from partner sites. Perhaps this is a pre-cursor to this, a way into the future, happening within the search engine itself.
Many of Google’s advances can be seen as developing a more real-world understanding of business; Google places local search results higher up for a whole of host of search terms. If you’re running a local business relying on local traffic or in a tourist town or city and have a good presence on the likes of TripAdvisor, you can probably afford to be a little quieter. Perhaps Street View could form part of this movement. As Google’s eyes throughout the world, Street View is entering businesses themselves so visitors can see inside and make their own judgement about a business just as they would in the high street. As Google’s Street View algorithm becomes complex enough to read the majority of street numbers, perhaps it will also become complex enough to accentuate the real world aspects of businesses and identify, just as passers-by do, your business by its shop size, window content or even the quality of the signage and branding just as humans do.